Favorite Reads of 2018

These are some of my favorite books that I read in 2018.Most were published last year, but a few are golden oldies that I've only just gotten around to reading.

The list is not in any particular order. Though I have no problem identifying those books I really enjoyed, I don't like rating them from best to worst, which strikes me as arbitrary. A good book is a good book--period.So, let's get the party started with one of the best weird tales I've read in some time, The Ballad of Black Tom

“Nobody ever thinks of himself as a villain, does he? 
Even monsters hold high opinions of themselves.” 
― Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom

This novella by Victor Lavalle just might be the consummate weird tale. The Ballad of Black Tom is is a reimagining of Lovecraft's "Horror at Red Hook.” Tommy Tester is a young black man trying to take care of his father in 1924 Harlem. He does what is necessary to earn his living, but when he's hired to deliver a mysterious book to an equally mysterious woman, a series of events are set in motion.

In prose as smooth as jazz, Lavalle conveys dual horrors. In this brilliant tale, the horror of the dread Master of R'lyeh coexists with the horror of racism and I’m not sure which is worse. Near the conclusion, after the die has been cast, Tom observes, “I'll take Cthulhu over you devils any day.”

And who can blame him?

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.
In his house at R'lyeh dead C'thulhu waits dreaming.

Next is The Night of the Hunter.

“It's a hard world for little things.” 
― Davis Grubb

Davis Grubb's dark gem was published in 1953 and wasn’t even available in a legitimate American version until Vintage Books republished it in 2015. I suspect that like most people, I was familiar with the story through Charles Laughton’s 1955 excellent film adaptation, which I watched on the afternoon movie on TV as a child. When I finally got around to reading the novel, the plot was a little hazy, though I do recall Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of Harry Powell scaring the bejesus out of me!

The novel takes place in Depression-era West Virginia. Nine-year-old John Harper tries to protect his little sister Pearl and their widowed mother from Harry Powell, a snake in preacher’s clothes. Powel is a serial killer who has slain so many widows for their money that he’s lost count. Only John sees Preacher for what he is—a monstrous hunter who kills the small, weak things of the earth.

In tone and structure, the book is reminiscent of an Appalachian ballad, a sad tale of loss and longing that descends into nightmare. Through written in lyrical and dreamy prose, the story moves at a relentless pace. Once begun, I found it impossible to put down.

The Night of the Hunter is a minor American classic that deserves to be read.

Continuing in this dark vein, let's check out Laura Lippman's first foray into noir fiction--Sunburn.

“She wonders if he is as exhausted by all the lying as she is.” 
― Laura Lippman

Though inspired by James M. Cain’s classic noir novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, the enigmatic character of Polly Costello is uniquely Lippman’s own creation. This is a difficult novel to discuss because the entire plot contains spoilers. Suffice it to say, that early on the reader realizes  that Polly is a woman with a troubled past, who may or may not have murdered her husband, though there's no doubt he beat her, which might explain why she stuck a knife in his chest while he slept.

The novel sizzles from page one when Polly meets handsome stranger Adam in a bar in Delaware. Polly is obviously on the run from it's unclear who or what is chasing her. Sparks fly between Polly and Adam, but there is something else as work in this relationship. The real fun for the reader is trying to figure out what these two people are up to—because they are definitely up to something.

The ending came as a total surprise and was eminently satisfying, in a dark sort of way.

Somewhere out there, James Cain must be smiling.

A man can live his whole life following the rules set down by happenstance and the cash-coated bait of security-cosseted morality; an entire lifetime and in the end he wouldn’t have done one thing to be proud of.” 
― Walter Mosley

Down the River unto the Sea is a private eye tale told as only Walter Mosley can tell it. PI Joe King Oliver has had a run of bad luck. Thirteen years earlier, while a detective with NYPD, the black detective was framed for the rape of a white woman. After spending three months in solitary confinement at Rikers, the charges were dropped, but by this time his life was smashed. He lost not only his wife and his job, but something of himself. When he gets the chance to find out who was responsible for the frame, he musters his courage and the story takes flight.

I loved every page and I especially loved this soft-spoken PI who finds his way through a racist reality with grace and humor.

I'm finishing with the only nonfiction entry--Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

“History is a merciless judge. It lays bare our tragic blunders and foolish missteps and exposes our most intimate secrets, wielding the power of hindsight like an arrogant detective who seems to know the end of the mystery from the outset.” 
― David Grann

In the 1870s the Osage people were driven from their ancestral land in what is now Kansas to a presumably useless land. When oil was discovered on their new homeland, prospectors had to pay the Osage Tribe in order to drill. By the early 1920s the Osage had become some of the richest people on earth. However, full-blooded Osage were considered incapable of handling such wealth and so a white guardian was assigned to “protect” his or her interest. 

It was the perfect setup for an unscrupulous white to take advantage of his Osage neighbors. As one white man observed, “The Osage Indians are becoming so rich that something will have to be done about it.”

Something was done. The Osage were married or befriended and then murdered. It’s still not certain how many were slaughtered. Between 1907 and 1923, the Osage death rate was more than one and a half times higher than the death rate for whites, when, with their higher standard of living, should by all rights have been lower. Eventually, the nascent FBI was sent to investigate since local law enforcement was either involved in the killings or simply ignored them.

Grann constructs his story through the prism of a single family, but even so there are scores of characters. A consummate researcher, he provides valuable context on everything from the state of forensic pathology in the early 1920s to the boarding schools that young Native Americans were forced to attend. All of this paints a shocking and horrifying picture of a community of willful executioners, who were either active in the murderous conspiracy or turned a blind eye.

If there is a hero in this story, it is Tom White, the frontier lawmen who uncovered a murder conspiracy, with one man at its center. A mote of justice was achieved when this man was convicted, but Hoover had no interest in shining too bright of a light on the other murders against the Osage. To him, the investigation was simply a means to promote his new “Bureau.” Once that was achieved, Osage were of no more use to him.

Killers of the Flower Moon is nonfiction that reads like fiction, with a cast of memorable characters one might find in the pages of a thriller. But because this story is true, its impact is more profound and heartrending than any fiction could ever be—a true American tragedy.